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Urban Gardening for Survivors


A student sits with her Spanish colleagues after a day of gardening
Gardening and sisterhood in Spain

Our garden would be built on a foundation of respect, solidarity, persistence, and patience. After months of tilling, sowing, raking, planting, transplanting, and watering, we had cultivated our very own urban Eden from the ground up.

I arrived at my first day of volunteer work with Mujeres Supervivientes in Sevilla both nervous and excited by the prospect of something new. I was eager to make myself useful, to learn, and to be a good representative of my country and of American women in a tumultuous time. I realized that I was being given an opportunity—to practice my Spanish, make personal connections, and find a sense of belonging in the city that had become my new home—and I hoped to give back something of equal value to an organization that was doing so much for the community.

Mujeres Supervivientes provides workshops and psychological, legal, and career services to female survivors of domestic violence. Their soup kitchen serves both women and men who are struggling economically, had recently immigrated, or for other reasons live on the margins of Sevillian society. I was invited to participate in their newest project, an urban garden, the fruits of which would be served in the soup kitchen or sold to support the organization’s other endeavors.

Women begin growing seedlings for community garden

The women of Mujeres Supervivientes had welcomed me with open arms. I was excited by the garden project and by the seeming ease with which I could make myself useful—I didn’t know the first thing about gardening, but how hard could it be? I knew that working in the garden would help me achieve the many goals I had set for my semester abroad. My Spanish was going to improve while I was in Sevilla—that was a given. I would have to work harder to come out of my shell, make personal connections with others, and find a community where I belonged. Mujeres Supervivientes would become that community for me.

We arrived at the garden on our first day of work to find our small plot of land dry, rocky, and weed-infested; our collection of tools and seeds meager; and our knowledge of agriculture nearly nonexistent. My lack of a green thumb didn’t stop me from learning by example, but my linguistic handicap made it difficult to share what I knew. I was heavily dependent on my online dictionary and the ever-growing list of vocabulary words I kept stored on my iPhone. It took me weeks to memorize the Spanish word for watering-can and to overcome the confusion that resulted from there seemingly being only one word in Spanish for many different varieties of squash.

For a while, every step we took forward in the garden seemed to be met with another step back—for every plant that survived and thrived, another wilted. It was slow going, and as young women we experienced our fair share of everyday sexism, or what the Spanish call machismo. In the garden, the older men who tended the neighboring plots stopped by often to offer their two cents and to question—both implicitly and explicitly—our strength, expertise, and work ethic. We were greatly outnumbered, yet Rocío, our volunteer coordinator, implored us to stand our ground. She reminded us that the garden was ours, that we should stand by our decisions and our knowledge, and that we shouldn’t let anyone else tell us how things should be done.

Aleson works in the garden

Rocío had been there for me from the beginning: welcoming me to the garden project, introducing me to my coworkers on the first day, encouraging me to return week after week. A Venezuelan immigrant of Spanish parents and a survivor of domestic violence, she embodied the resilience that Mujeres Supervivientes stands for. Our garden would be built on a foundation of respect (for both ourselves and each other), solidarity, persistence, and patience. Patient we were, and after months of tilling, sowing, raking, planting, transplanting, and watering (so much watering), we had cultivated our very own urban Eden from the ground up.

On my last day in the garden before leaving Sevilla, I finished up a typical morning’s work with my fellow volunteers to find that they had planned a surprise picnic for me. In the shade of the garden, we shared lunch, took some parting photos, and reflected on our experience together. As with every aspect of my study abroad experience, what I got out of my time with Mujeres Supervivientes was exactly what I put in. I rose early every Thursday to take the bus across town to our garden; I rushed off to afternoon classes at the university and inevitably arrived out of breath, sunburned, and covered in mud. I had challenged myself constantly to make personal connections with my peers.

The vocabulary I picked up from working with Mujeres Supervivientes helped me become the empathetic, passionate activist that I always strive to be—in Spanish.

In our first few weeks in Sevilla, my friends and I often commented on how shallow we felt when we spoke our stumbling, broken Spanish, as if our personalities were lost in translation. We realized how much we depended on language to be ourselves, and to project ourselves to others. It’s not something I anticipated when I set out to learn a new language, but for me there was a process of “becoming myself” in Spanish. As I became more fluent, I felt more and more of my identity coming through when I spoke. The vocabulary I picked up from working with Mujeres Supervivientes helped me become the empathetic, passionate activist that I always strive to be—in Spanish.

Aleson with her gardening group in Seville

I had been warned at the beginning of the semester that my experience as a volunteer in Spain would be different than any volunteering experience I had in the United States. As a volunteer at home, I was accustomed to being assigned tasks to accomplish and seeing the results of my efforts, but as a volunteer in Spain I might never receive a clear assignment or see the fruits of my labor, and would likely feel underutilized or unproductive at times. By the end of my time in Sevilla, I had helped build a garden which would finance and nourish Mujeres Supervivientes for years to come. I had participated in a transnational conversation, about sexism, immigration, economic inequality, and female solidarity. I had learned the language of agriculture, but I had also learned the language of activism, collaboration, sisterhood, and self-care. I had made lasting friendships and been a part of something meaningful. I had lived my study in a unique and altogether unexpected way.

My coworkers lamented that my time with them had come to an end and joked that I could stay longer if only they confiscated my passport. I told them that such drastic measures weren’t necessary! It is already my mission to return to Spain after my graduation.

By the end of my time in Sevilla, ... I had learned the language of agriculture, but I had also learned the language of activism, collaboration, sisterhood, and self-care.

Going Abroad
Spain
Arts & Sciences
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